The 15th of August was no ordinary Sunday. Par golfers muffed "gimme" putts. Expert tennis players repeatedly double-faulted. Veteran campers and picnickers fled from the woods and fields. The common cause: a runny nose, a burning, parched throat, itching, gushing eyes and paroxysms of sneezing.
For at least three and possibly seven million Americans, August 15 was opening day of the late summer hay fever season—as it has been since man first sneezed. By the end of the week, hundreds of thousands of sufferers were crisscrossing the country in search of refuge. But not until the first frost of October will hay fever victims draw an easy breath again.
Despite an arsenal of powerful drugs and potent sprays, hay fever remains one of the most constant human complaints. If left untreated, 60% of the cases will eventually develop into chronic bronchial asthma, according to one expert. Hay fever, however, is seldom taken seriously by anyone except perhaps the poor victim. And he's more likely to be twitted than pitied.
Medically speaking, the term "hay fever" is completely misleading. It doesn't produce a fever, and it isn't caused by hay. Four times out of five the culprit is ubiquitous, almost indestructible, ragweed. This ugly plant (it flourishes in about 60 different varieties) alone spews a quarter of a million tons of yellow pollen into the country air each summer. Other, more localized, provocateurs are pollen from any or all of some 30 weeds that include thistle, tumbleweed, lamb's quarters, sage and hemp. "Goldenrod, too," you might add. But no. Goldenrod and all other plants pollinated by insects are blameless. Only pollens blown and spread by the wind cause hay fever.
Ragweed flourishes in nearly every quarter of the U.S., but the Midwest is by far the most infested section (see map). Here, hot dry summer winds whip clouds of yellow pollen as high as a mile above the ground and then scatter it over vast areas. It doesn't take much to send an allergic person sneezing. A pollen count of 25 or more is enough; this means only 25 microscopic bits of pollen drifting in a cubic yard of air.
For the thousands of sufferers who pack off for vacation to escape the ravages of hay fever, Oren C. Durham, chairman of the American Academy of Allergy's pollen survey committee, compiles a ragweed index each year on some 600 cities. Any place with a rating of 10 spells trouble. Dallas, Texas and Coldwater, Mich., otherwise pleasant towns to visit, have the appalling rating of 190. For the hay fever sufferer, one sniff of Dallas or Coldwater air is like rolling in a bin of ragweed.
The Far West, Rocky Mountain states, eastern Florida and northern New England are the only relatively pollen-free areas of the country. "Relatively," because an ill wind has been known to blow no-good pollen as far as 400 miles. The safest refuges are outside the U.S.—Alaska, Bermuda, Hawaii, Cuba and parts of Canada. The only foolproof escape, however, is not on land at all but at sea—so long as the ship stays in mid-ocean.
For all the misery hay fever creates, science has yet to discover a panacea. The best defense is inoculations of pollen extract. They help about eight out of 10 people but must be repeated each year and started weeks or months before the sneezing season begins. So if you've put off getting shots, it will do little good to rush to the doctor now.
Antihistamines, while no cure, are the next best thing. Taken by pill, capsule, elixir, syrup, injection, eye and nose drop, ointment, lotion and nasal spray, they throw up a chemical barrier against insidious particles of pollen and unblock clogged, dripping noses. Since the most concentrated attacks of hay fever come very early in the morning or quite late at night, the drowsy side effect of antihistamines may also provide sleep as well as relief.
If drugs don't work, if shots won't take and you can find no place to hide, doctors offer some other suggestions. Admittedly, they demand a strong will:
•Wear a mask over nose and mouth.
•Cut out smoking and stay out of smoke-filled rooms.
•Avoid alcohol; it tends to dilate blood vessels just as do the pollens. Also avoid spiced foods, perfumes, toilet water, scented cosmetics and powdered soap.
•Keep house and car windows shut when pollen is rampant.
•Avoid exertion, fatigue and changes in temperature.
•Stay in air-conditioned buildings as long as possible.
•Don't fight with your wife and children; emotional tension is believed to set off some attacks of hay fever.
As the pollen count soared higher and higher last week, one doctor was heard advising an itching, weeping, sneezing, wheezing patient: "Spend the next six weeks in a 'no smoking,' air-conditioned theater watching a dull, unemotional movie."
"Is there any cure for hay fever?" a patient of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once asked.
"Yes," he answered. "Gravel...taken about eight feet deep."